As coronavirus pandemic enters ‘stark new phase,’ hospitals prepare for a shortage of beds

Treatment rooms for seriously ill patients in the Salem Hospital emergency department are larger to allow more people and medical equipment inside (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

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As the coronavirus continues to spread in Oregon, the state is on a path to run out of hospital beds particularly by next month without a significant slowing of the disease or drastic response by public health officials. 

Gov. Kate Brown and her health team Monday afternoon announced new statewide restrictions while mapping out a plan to boost the capacity of hospitals to deal with the expected wave of patients infected with COVID-19.

She banned gatherings of 25 or more – a substantial change from earlier prohibitions of gatherings of 250 or more. She ordered restaurants and bars to stop sit-down dining, but allowed them to provide delivery or takeout service.

“Isolation from our friends and neighbors is the only way to flatten the curve of transmission and get Oregon through this,” Brown said.

State health officials revealed the results of modeling done by Oregon Health and Science University of how the pandemic virus will hit Oregon. They repeated earlier forecasts of 75,000 infected Oregonians but added that they expected the number of known cases to double every six days without strong action.

Dr. Dana Hargunani, the chief medical officer for the Oregon Health Authority, starkly explained what would happen if a spike in cases can’t be averted.

“We will not be able to save everyone,” Hagunani said.

She said physicians could face “heartbreaking decisions” as Oregon “a stark new phase” with the virus.

Dr. Renee Edwards, OHSU chief medical officer, said the modeling showed Oregon would need an additional 1,000 hospital beds and 400 intensive care unit beds to accommodate the surge. The state’s 62 hospitals have 6,600 beds.

Edwards said that 20% of those who contract COVID-19 would require hospitalization.

Oregon needs to quickly add hospital beds across the state to cope .

She said that OHSU, for example, could need 80 ICU beds for expected COVID-19 patients by mid-April – double what it has.

“This happens to be near our current ICU capacity,” she said. “And on a normal day, our ICU is already full of Oregonians who need critical care, even without the COVID crisis.” 

Brown said the state intended to “expand bed capacity by adding beds in non-hospital settings,” although she didn’t elaborate.

Oregon has one of the lowest per-capita bed rates nationally. The state has just 1.6 hospital beds per 1,000 people, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In Portland, Kaiser Permanente, Legacy Health, Providence Health and OHSU plan to operate as a single entity to build capacity, coordinate medical responses and prevent a shortage of hospital beds. 

While the effort is based in the Portland area, Brown said it could function as a model for the rest of the state. 

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.